Blythe Danner at Tanglewood Jazz Festival

Returning to Old Haunts in the Berkshires

By: - Aug 08, 2011

Blythe Danner Blythe Danner

Tony Award-winning actress Blythe Danner will be the featured guest on Judy Carmichael’s “Jazz Inspired” on Saturday, September 3, at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival.  She will speak about her life-long love of jazz, singing jazz in college with bandmate Chevy Chase, and her friendship with the influential jazz pianist Bill Evans.  Danner will perform with pianist Mike Renzi and bassist Neal Miner.  “Jazz Inspired” will be taped before a live audience at Seiji Ozawa Hall on Saturday, September 3, at 2 pm, and broadcast at a later date on 170 stations in the United States and worldwide.

We spoke with her about the upcoming performance during the festival as well as her long association with the Williamstown Theater Festival. Her daughter Gwyneth Paltrow literally cut her acting teeth at WTF. Also Danner discussed some 40 years as an activist.

Charles Giuliano Greetings from the Berkshires. Where are you calling from?

Blythe Danner From the tip of Long Island. It’s wonderful to be in the Berkshires I was just there after a long time.

CG You may recall that I introduced myself to you.

BD Yes of course. Which show were we seeing? I saw several while I was up there.

CG She Stoops to Conquer.

BD It was hilarious.

CG Are you still on the Board of Williamstown Theatre Festival?

BD I’m officially emerita I suppose. Sadly, not nearly as involved as I would like to be.

CG WTF was a home to you for many years.

BD Yes. Many years. My daughter (Gwyneth) was about a year and a half. I started up there doing The Seagull. With Nikos. Then almost consecutively for twenty years.

CG Is there the chance that we will see you again?

BD I hope so. I am really down here in the summer so it is hard to manage that. But I really do love being with them (WTF).

CG Do you know approximately how many productions you were in?

BD On my gosh. The person to ask would be Steve Lawson. He knows everyone’s production numbers. I have no idea. I averaged two a summer and if it was 20 summers, no, I don’t think it was 40 productions.

CG Two a summer! That’s amazing.

BD Somewhere around that.

CG When Gwyneth was more than just a year and a half you performed together on stage at WTF.

BD (Laughs) Yes. I believe that Nikos first used her as a little boy. Unfortunately I don’t have great recall. But as a very little girl she was on the (WTF) Cabaret stage with Frank Langella. And with Christian Slater when they were both very small. They did “I Can Do Anything You Can Do Better” or “Friendship.” One of those.

CG As far as playing boys Gwenyth had some success with that later. (Academy Award, 1998 for Shakespeare in Love)

BD Exactly. She happened to have a short hair cut at the time so that’s why they thought of her way back when. When I was carrying her. When I was pregnant with her I was doing Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center. I was playing Viola. Which she played later in Shakespeare in Love. When she was older we did two productions. We did Picnic (WTF) and a new play before that which I can’t remember.

CG There’s a photo of the two of you in Picnic hanging at WTF. It was great fun to see you face to face. We are kind of the same vintage. You look marvelous. You’re so stunning. What an inspiration.

BD You’re so sweet. Most of the women who come up to me say “You look so much better in person than you do in films.” I don’t find that insulting at all. I don’t photograph that well.

CG You seem well tended to. I noticed that you had nicely done hair. Do you pay attention to that kind of thing?

BD You’ll laugh because that was an absolute wash and dry. I’m not saying that I walk about without doing anything. When I have to make an appearance then I have people fussing over me. I just am lucky to have curly hair. Sometimes it’s outrageously out of control but on a good hair day it’s OK.

CG How do you keep your looks? Do you work out?

BD Part of it is just genetics. Both of my parents, who never saw a botox needle, looked very youthful. My mother when she was 86 people thought she was 76. So a lot of it is genes and there are things out there to help us old ladies. I’ve been working a lot lately so it is hard to be consistent but I walk and try to work out. I love to swim. I was captain of my swimming team eons ago. At the Quaker school I went to.

CG I was also on the swim team, fifty yard freestyle, but it was a long time ago.

BD I did breast stroke and butterfly.

CG Butterfly! That’s tough.

BD I loved it. It made me feel like a fish. If you get the rhythm right it’s not so tough. It’s a part of the rhythm that the dolphin has.

CG What led you into a life in theatre?

BD Probably initially my parents. The had extraordinary voices. They met through the Philadelphia Choral Society. They would act in the PTA shows. They were charming and beautiful. Mother would wear lovely dresses and whisper the lyrics into Dad’s ear. He would forget them. Initially that’s where the seed was sewn. At Quaker school we had a wonderful drama department. Then on to Bard College. I always loved entering into someone else’s persona. I had the opportunity, especially at Williamstown, to play some of the great roles.

CG Were you a hippie? Bard was a hippie school.

BD No I wasn’t I was always drawn to jazz. Instead of folk or even rock. I was always singing jazz at Bard and still love jazz. Which has drawn me to coming up to Tanglewood.

CG We are looking forward to it.

BD With Judy Carmichael.

CG I was in another life the jazz and rock critic for the daily Boston Herald Traveler. From that era I have a collection of 7,500 LPs.

BD Wow. I have a lot of LPs too but nothing close to that count. Are they in good shape? A lot of mine skip because of scratches over the years.

CG Where would we place you in your approach to jazz singing?

BD I really can’t say. I have to demure a bit because I don’t really consider myself a jazz singer. I did a lot of singing at Williamstown at the Cabarets. I would give it a whirl every so often. When Judy asked me to do this I said “Judy I don’t really sing that much anymore.” I spoke with her on her radio show several years ago. I told her that Bill Evans was a friend of mine and that I was fortunate to have some great experiences over the years. I sang in a place in Vermont with the piano player for Cannonball Adderly and Art Blakey Junior was the drummer. We had Sonny Rollins come to Bard. We had, who was the bass player?

CG Ron Carter?

BD Yeah, Ron Carter came. Bill Evans came up and gave us a wonderful break on his price to play at Bard. That’s how I became friendly with him. I rubbed his fingers one time before he went on at the Vanguard. He needed a little rub just to get the blood going. I have had wonderful eclectic experiences with jazz people and jazz in general. Judy wanted me to talk about that. I’m going to warble something but I don’t know what. I certainly do not consider myself a jazz singer.

CG Do you scat?

BD Minorly. I copy a lot. There are jazz singers I have tremendous admiration for. Shelia Jordan, Sarah Vaughan, and Diane Reeves. I don’t know and can’t even pretend to know a lot of the new young gals. I follow Mark Murphy.

CG There’s a blast from the past.

BD I always, always, always listen to jazz. It has infiltrated my acting instrument in a way too. I’m somebody who never likes to do anything exactly the same every night on stage. I don’t go so far out that I throw my fellow players. I constantly want to dig deeper and investigate.

CG The issue of freshness is fascinating. If you are in a long running show how do you go out night after night and keep it fresh?

BD Yeah. Right. That’s how you do it I think.

CG If you listen to Coltrane’s live recordings of "Favorite Things" it’s never the same.

BD Exactly. I listened to that a lot.  I heard Miles and Coltrane. I heard a lot of the great guys.

CG I knew Miles. Or, I should say, he tolerated my presence.

BD He could not have been an easy person to hang out with.

CG I learned a lot from the jazz world. They are so real and down to earth. There is no tolerance for pretense.

BD I think you’re right.

CG It taught me to be myself. Like this conversation. It only works if you be yourself.

BD How did you find Miles? Because of all the people you read about or hear about perhaps he was the one who wasn’t so down to earth.

CG There are a lot of misconceptions. But Miles always took you straight on. If you had talent or something to say he would listen. Like when he had Bill Evans in the group. He was criticized for that. Why did he have a white guy in the group? Miles took the point of view that Bill Evans was the best available musician.

BD He had tremendous respect for Bill.  

CG When Ken Burns did the PBS series on the  history of jazz.

BD I was annoyed about that.

CG Bill Evans was written out of the history.

BD Right. Bill was given just a nod basically.

CG It’s interesting you mention rubbing his hands. Near the end of his life during a club date he was talking with a few jazz writers and he mentioned having arthritis.

BD I knew him earlier than that but it must have been very worrisome to him.

CG Were you a New Yorker hanging around at the clubs?

BD Yeah. The other day I was trying to figure out  what was the club near the tunnel on the Hudson?

CG I remember that club (The Half Note was a jazz club located at 289 Hudson Street. It closed in 1972). That’s where Lennie Tristano played and I saw him there a few times. The band stand was located above the bar.

BD Yeah. I remember that. I heard Coltrane there but had to leave because at one point, oh my god, who was the drummer?

CG Elvin Jones.

BD Right. He took a twenty minute solo and I had to leave.

CG They did that didn’t they.

BD I remember him being up high. I think I was only there once. What was the name of the club?

CG It seems both of us are having a senior moment.

BD I even had them when I was a junior. I can’t blame age. It’s always been a problem.

CG Are you involved in other projects?

BD Sure. I’m joining a group called Moms Clean Air Force (MCAF). The EPA is being threatened. We have a very good policy to deal with the threat of mercury. It’s being threatened as everything is. I don’t want to say by right or left. I want to keep it non partisan. But there is a national policy to reduce mercury from the electricity producing sector and we only have four months before elections time. The EPA has introduced a rule called The Mercury in Air Toxic Standard. It is the first national policy to reduce mercury emissions.

We are trying to get, not only mothers, but everybody to let their Congressmen know that we are not going to tolerate any cutbacks on toxic emissions. That they’re trying to pull.

Also, I have a passion for the Oral Cancer Foundation which my husband (producer Bruce Paltrow) succumbed to. I urge people to go on line because there is an epidemic of oral cancer among younger people. It isn’t talked about very much but it is a dire situation. We are trying to get pre pubescent boys and girls to get the inoculation.

CG You’re also active in Environmental Media Association.

BD Yes. I’m also on the advisory board of the Union of Concerned Scientists. I’ve been obsessed with this stuff for 40 years as a mother and now a grand mother.

CG So you are using your celebrity as visibility for activism?

BD Yes. I’ve tried to over the years. Sometimes I have to hone in on the most important things because I am so attracted to so many issues. The environment has always had an important place in my activism. The fact that so many young people are getting oral cancer is a part of the environment as well. People’s immune systems are compromised by all the toxins we are exposed to.

CG Is oral cancer related to smoking?

BD They say that only 20% of the people who get oral cancer have been smokers. It is astonishing that it is related to oral sex. This one particular strain is related to cervical cancer. Since the beginning of time there has been oral sex so why would there be a sudden upsurge in this?

CG Do you have any theatrical, film or TV projects coming up?

BD I have a film with Anna Faris called What’s Your Number opening in September. I am about to shoot Hello I Must Be Going which is a little Indy. It will be shot in Connecticut. That’s an interesting piece. Also I’m working on something in October in Louisiana. I believe Sam Shepard will play my husband. It’s called The Dirt Road to Lafayette. They are using a lot of music from a concert they have down there every year. (Festival International de Louisiane?)

CG At this time in your life and career as an artist what floats your boat? What keeps you going and gets you out of bed in the morning?

BD The new day. I’ve got to meditate every morning. To get myself going. Just being alive. I’m grateful for whatever I’ve got here. There is never enough time to do everything I want to do.

CG As an artist are you on top of your game or is there still a ways to go?

BD There is always a ways to go. I will always be searching.